Threatened by Chevy, Henry Ford produced a V-8 for the masses

The flathead V-8 block: The four large bores are the cylinders, and they’re each flanked by two smaller openings, one for the intake valve, the other for the exhaust.

A modest education didn’t hinder Henry Ford’s inventive genius. Following his moving assembly line and Model T gifts to posterity, Ford responded to every competitive threat with some brilliant and often unexpected stride forward. Case in point: the 1932 Ford V-8, which changed the car business and American culture in profound ways.

Chevrolet’s growing success convinced Ford that his Model A, introduced in 1928, wouldn’t match the phenomenal Model T’s 19-year stamina. After topping Ford sales in ’27 and ’28, Chevy leaped from four to six cylinders in 1929. Ford, who despised inline-sixes because their long crankshafts were susceptible to twisting under load, devised a bold countermove. In spite of a consensus that eights would remain exclusive to luxury cars because of their complex construction, Ford’s engineers had studied them for years. The trick up the boss’s sleeve was the first V-8 cheap enough for the low-priced class.

Ford engineers gathered nine eight-cylinder engines made by upmarket brands for assessment. Standard practice as exemplified by Cadillac’s V-8 was multipiece construction, with the crankcase supporting two or more cylinder blocks and complex intake and exhaust plumbing located between the cylinder banks.

Ford’s better idea to cut cost was a single-piece block, with integral intake and exhaust runners. After building more than two dozen such designs for testing, Ford’s engineers worried about their ability to build the intricate blocks in volume. Ignoring their concerns, Henry emerged from a December 1931 meeting with his son, Edsel, to proclaim the V-8 a go.

While engine designers toiled in secrecy within Thomas Edison’s Fort Myers laboratory, which Henry had moved from Florida to Dearborn’s Greenfield Village, production boss Charles Sorensen began overhauling the company’s casting and machining operations. His challenge was building the new V-8 cheaply enough for it to be offered in $500–$700 cars, when a Lincoln V-8 started at $2900.

Ford suggested sparing the cost of an oil pump by lubricating moving parts with the splash scheme that had sufficed on the Model T. The first prototype V-8 built with that approach quickly burned out during dynamometer testing. Another issue was exhaust routing. Confident that overhead valves or hot manifolds located in the valley area would bust his budget, Ford vetoed those approaches, leaving one alternative: internal exhaust passages that wrapped around or between the cylinders on their way to the block’s outer flanks. These elaborate internal conduits, which had never before been used in production, were the key features that made the Ford V-8 a genuine breakthrough design.

An overhead-valve engine (left) and flathead engine (right) layout
Beau Daniels
An overhead-valve engine (left) and flathead engine (right) layout

Sorensen—known as “Cast-Iron Charlie” for his success combining multiple components into one elaborate casting to save cost, weight, and complexity—took his boss’s stubbornness in stride. Even so, the wizard who created the first removable cylinder head for the Model T had his work cut out.

To combine in a single casting eight cylinder bores, the upper half of the crankcase, intake and exhaust runners, oil galleries, coolant passages, and the flywheel housing required 40 sand cores (they define the voids inside a casting) precisely located within each block’s mold patterns. Even with new 1/64-inch tolerances, the tightest in the industry, 95 percent of the initial castings were scrap because the cores had moved inside the mold pattern during the pouring process, resulting in walls that were unacceptably thin in places. The issue was resolved by using fixtures to accurately position the cores and adhesives to secure them in place.

To trim weight and friction, the design employed three instead of the more common five main bearings, plus a cast-steel crankshaft that was developed with the strength of a forging but at significantly lower cost. Large counterweights and dynamic balancing improved smoothness. Lessons learned perfecting the steel crank’s metallurgy were carried over to make better cast-aluminum pistons. The oil sump and the intake manifold were also aluminum.

Since the 30-acre Rouge foundry in Dearborn would be supplying 3000 engines per day to 33 Ford assembly plants, manufacturing speed was of the essence. Sand was shot into molds from overhead chutes and packed using vibration to minimize hand labor. After passing through a vertical curing oven, the molds were placed on a moving conveyor and filled by two-ton traveling ladles. Ford’s cast-iron recipe consisted of 80-percent iron, 15-percent scrap steel, 3.2-to-3.5-percent carbon, 1.8-to-2.1-per-cent silicon, 0.6-to-0.8-percent manganese, 0.25-to-0.32-percent phosphorus, and no more than 0.1-percent sulfur. Cast iron’s combination of stiffness, strength, wear resistance, and low cost would make it the material of choice for engine blocks for the rest of the 20th century.

An advanced machining line allowed all eight cylinders to be bored, then honed, simultaneously. Half the valve seats were ground in a single operation followed by rotating the block to cut seats in the opposite bank. All machining operations were completed in 160 minutes, about the same time required for Ford’s four-cylinder engine. Only 120 minutes were needed to transform the bare block into a fully assembled V-8. When Sorensen told his boss that revolutionizing foundry and machining operations would cost $50 million, Ford responded, “Charlie, we have too much money in the bank. Let’s you and I pull that down until it hurts. I know this new car will bring in more money than ever, but don’t tell them [the front-office accountants] I said so.” Given that the Great Depression was raging, Ford’s courage was amazing.

Ford’s V-8 was an L-head—a.k.a. “flathead”—design with one central camshaft directly activating valves situated nearly parallel to and inboard of the cylinders. The top of the block was covered by two hollow castings, each retained by 21 studs and nuts. Each head’s outer surface was tapped for spark plugs, and its bottom side had four depressions providing valve clearance and flow from the intake valves into the cylinders and out the exhaust valves. It shared the Model A’s water pumps, which were bolted to the forward edge of each cylinder head.

The Ford flathead V-8, which debuted in 1932 after a breakneck development period, went on to power everything from trucks to land speed racers.
Ben Woodworth
The Ford flathead V-8, which debuted in 1932 after a breakneck development period, went on to power everything from trucks to land speed racers.

The circuitous flow of hot exhaust gas through the block transferred prodigious heat to the cooling system. There were three exhaust passages per bank: one wrapped around each end of the block and a third squeezed between the two center cylinders, where greater bore spacing between them allowed room for the middle exhaust passage and the crank’s center main bearing.

The exhaust-heated block with water pumps whirling in steam yielded marginal cooling. Instead of acknowledging his miracle engine’s obvious shortcoming, Ford touted its speedy warm-up during his home state’s chilly winters. Fixes to address the issue included doubling the number of fan blades from two to four, a larger radiator, and more hood louvers to improve air circulation around the engine. In 1937, the boss was finally persuaded to move the water pumps from the heads to the block, instantly solving the overheating problem. Now instead of spinning fruitlessly in steam, the pump impellers circulated water from the cooler regions of the block up to the warmer cylinder heads and then to the radiator.

Feeding eight widely spaced cylinders with a single-barrel carburetor perched atop a rudimentary manifold starved the remote bores and overfed the center cylinders. A better arrangement arrived in 1934: a new Stromberg two-barrel carb combined with a dual-plane manifold to even out fuel and air distribution.

Ford’s V-8 produced 65 horsepower from 221 cubic inches versus Chevy’s 60 horsepower from 194 cubic inches. Countering Chevy’s more sophisticated overhead valves, the Ford V-8 had a pressurized lubrication system (against Henry’s initial preference) instead of Chevy’s rudimentary squirt-and-splash arrangement. At 581 pounds, the Ford V-8 was lighter and more compact than the arch rival’s six-cylinder engine.

Nearly six million tire kickers visited Ford showrooms when the V-8–powered Model 18 was introduced on March 31, 1932, barely four months after Ford father and son agreed to replace the four-year-old Model A with an all-new car. Offered in 14 body styles with prices ranging from $460–$650, the 1932 Ford V-8 was a brilliant marriage of stunning design orchestrated by Edsel with a breakthrough engine conceived by his father.

Collaboration between the younger Ford and a group of designers headed by John Tjaarda at body supplier Briggs Manufacturing brought elegant Lincoln exterior design to the economy class. The Model 18’s grille frame was da Vinci gorgeous. Raised contours and pinstriping accented the major body forms. Polished chrome and stainless-steel lights, bumpers, and hub caps added sparkle. Eighteen-inch wire wheels gave the car an assertive look, and synchromesh for its transmission’s top two gears improved driving finesse.

Nearly 100,000 customers placed orders sight unseen, a number that doubled once the public had a glimpse of the 1932 Fords. Unfortunately, the rush to production left minimal opportunity to prove the new V-8’s durability. Faced with that task, initial customers reported overheating, high oil consumption (up to a quart every 50 miles), cracked blocks, worn pistons, and unreliable ignition. Luckily for Ford, there was no J.D. Power or Consumer Reports back then, and service fixes were implemented before news of the V-8’s flaws became scandalous.

Until a solution to the oil-consumption issue could be developed, the fix was to alter the dipstick by raising the “low” mark one inch and shortening the stick an inch overall. That yielded a larger supply of oil in the pan and more miles of driving before running critically short of lubricant. A popular myth concerning piston wear was that it was caused by the cylinders’ 45-degree orientation. Dealers were supplied with millions of replacement pistons and the dollars to install them until tougher materials were developed. Switching to a dual-breaker-point distributor remedied ignition concerns.

Henry Ford risked his entire enterprise to develop and produce a V-8 engine for mass produced cars. In the process, he made a legend that powered the hot rod movement.
Ford Motor Company
Henry Ford risked his entire enterprise to develop and produce a V-8 engine for mass produced cars. In the process, he made a legend that powered the hot rod movement.

What the buying public saw as an attractive, high-value car, the nation’s speed fiends recognized as their blank canvas. Fitting dual exhaust for enhanced power and growl was a weekend driveway project. Stripping fenders and running boards yielded a dirt-track demon. Less than a year after the V-8 reached Ford showrooms, seven of them topped the field at a stock-car race in Elgin, Illinois. Chet Miller qualified a flathead roadster at 109 mph for the 1934 Indy 500. Earlier that spring, post office celebrities Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger allegedly penned letters of appreciation to the Ford Motor Company. In 1936, Fords won the first Daytona Beach stock-car race and the Monte Carlo Rally.

Digging inside the new V-8, tuners—especially those in California—mined hidden horsepower. Boring the cylinders and stretching the stroke by welding and remachining the crank throws increased piston displacement. Shaved cylinder heads raised the compression ratio. Adding carburetion, installing exhaust headers, and hogging out internal passageways improved breathing. In 1938, Vic Edelbrock—a charter member of today’s $40 billion aftermarket speed-parts industry—purchased a ’32 Ford V-8 roadster to test street and racing mods in Southern California.

What Henry and his son, Edsel, had accidentally created was the great American hot rod. Their annual improvements fueled the bonfire. A longer wheelbase and a rakish sweep-spear grille for 1933 made the car appear lower and leaner. Higher compression boosted output to 75 horsepower that year, followed by 85 horsepower in 1934, thanks to the new two-barrel carburetor. Continual development yielded 95 horsepower before production was interrupted by World War II. And there was even a smaller variant, a 136-cubic-inch flathead with 60 horsepower created in 1937 to compete against rival six-cylinder models. Postwar, it became the midget racer’s engine of choice.

The first Mercurys arrived in 1939, powered by a 239-cubic-inch flathead with 95 horsepower, which rose to an even 100 in 1942. A longer stroke came in 1949, notching displacement to 255 cubic inches—good for a 10-hp boost. The most potent version was a 337-cubic-inch, 152-hp flathead for Lincolns and pickups, beginning in 1949. Because the core design lasted from 1932 through 1953, when Ford introduced its first overhead-valve V-8, stuffing later cranks inside early blocks became standard hot-rod practice.

Following its U.S. production run of some 15 million engines, Henry’s V-8 was licensed to foreign manufacturers, who continued to nurture this classic until 1990.